BUSPH Students Recognized for Work in Assessing Health Impacts of MBTA Cuts

Posted on: April 10, 2012


The report estimated costs of additional traffic, fuel, hospital visits, and emissions at between $272 million and $386 million, depending on how much the MBTA raised fares and cut services.

At the start of the semester, Jon Levy, professor of environmental health at BUSPH, had students in his Urban Environmental Health class read about “rapid” health impact assessments, in which complex analyses need to be done in a matter of weeks to evaluate the health impacts of policy measures being weighed by decision-makers.

“I thought at the time, well, that doesn’t seem very likely. Decisions usually take much longer than a few weeks. It’s probably something none of them will ever need to do,” Levy recounted.


During the second week of the semester, Levy got a call from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, asking him to help with an analysis and report on the potential health impacts of Greater Boston’s proposed MBTA service cuts and fare increases. The time frame? Four weeks.

Levy, an expert in assessing health risks of environmental exposures, called his students together and told them he needed them to practice what the books had preached.

jonlevy.jpgJonathan Levy“It was very fortuitous. It all sort of lined up perfectly,” Levy said. “We were already planning to work on a hypothetical health impact assessment related to traffic — but instead, they got to work on a real-world situation. That doesn’t happen very often.”

Levy and his class ended up as contributors to a 20-page report, presented to the MBTA in March, which found that the proposed cuts and fare hikes aimed at plugging the T’s $161 million deficit would result in a surge of cars on the road, increasing pollution, crashes and obesity, among other impacts on residents’ quality of life.

The report, co-authored by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, estimated costs of additional traffic, fuel, hospital visits, and emissions at between $272 million and $386 million, depending on how much the MBTA raised fares and cut services.

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority proposed deep service cuts and fare hikes that prompted widespread opposition from residents who rely on public transportation. On April 4, the MBTA board of directors voted to raise fares and monthly passes by an average of 23 percent. Only a handful of the 200 bus routes and three of the weekend commuter rail lines will be eliminated — far less harsh than the cuts and fare increases that had been floated in January and opposed at a series of hearings.

The eight students in Levy’s class worked in groups to tackle various facets of the report, using transportation models from the state’s Central Transportation Planning Staff and data from other scientific studies. From that, Levy said, they built a conceptual model that formed the basis of the report.

Students in Levy’s class said the real-world experience was hectic, but rewarding.

“It was a really great experience to be able to work hard and have our research have an impact, with such a fast turnaround,” said Stefani Penn, a first-year PhD student in Environmental Health. “We worked as a group in class to determine which health pathways we should focus on — for example, analysis of how the T’s cuts would affect physical activity, noise, disparities in health, etc.

“Summarizing all of the available information on these pathways proved to be very difficult in the short time period, and made us focus on what would be the most important to the T officials and riders.”

Another student, Joseph Lai, said the fast-track work was “indeed a stressful experience, but it reflected what would have happened in the real world, so to speak. The main authors didn’t get much more time to work on it than we did, because the MBTA only gave 30 days for public opinion after releasing the scenarios. It was definitely an exercise in the real-world dynamics of the job.”

Both Penn and Lai, who attended a press conference at the State House where the report was released, said they were pleased to see their work attracting public attention.

“It was a bit daunting seeing our work being presented in front of the community and local officials, plus TV cameras,” said Lai. “But at the same time, there was just a sense of excitement that the work that you did is now being brought into a public forum and is influencing opinions.”

Penn said seeing public reaction to the report “made it clear which pieces of the analysis were of the greatest interest. It is a part of the process that, as a PhD student, is not highlighted as greatly. I have been doing environmental health research for a few years, and this was the first time I have been able to see how work that I have had an integral part in has had an impact right away, and I’m really proud of it. “

Besides Penn and Lai, other students who contributed to the report were: Amy Budahn, Dominique Chambless, Sarah Doersam, Stephanie Hill, Joe King and Christine Mullane.

Jonathan R. Davis, the T’s acting general manager, said he appreciated the report, noting that the authority is reluctant to make the cuts but has few other options. MBTA officials are required by law to balance their budget.

Levy said that without the students’ help, he might not have had the time to take on the assessment, on top of his other research work. He said the timing was lucky.

“It was nice to have a real-world situation for them to work on — and also for them to know that the work they did could have some influence on the transportation system,” Levy said.

Submitted by: Lisa Chedekel